In my early 20’s, when I was single, working full-time and always on the go, I admittedly used frozen dinners regularly to help me manage my budget and time. They were simple, easy, and offered me variety without going to the store, shopping and spending a ton of time in the kitchen.
It seemed like a no-brainer to buy a dozen or more Lean Cuisines or Healthy Choice frozen meals during my weekly trip to the grocery store — only problem was that no matter how exotic my choices got, I was still STARVING after eating them. At this time in my life, I was also calorie counting and obsessing over every thing I put in my mouth, so this calorie controlled mini meal made both economical and logical sense so I suffered through. Needless to say, I don’t use frozen dinners very often anymore, but there are times when they are tempting and convenient.
But, let’s get to the question: Are frozen dinners healthy? Keeping a few frozen dinners around for when you are in a pinch is not a bad idea, however, using them as a main staple in your diet is not suggested. Frozen dinners are still considered processed food which is often packaged in plastic which can leak harmful chemicals into the food — even organic frozen dinner brands have to use some plastic in their packaging. They also lack vital nutrients and “prana” or energy that you get from fresh foods so they are not something you want to eat every day.
For those days when you have to resort to a frozen meal, I hope to offer here some tips and suggestions.
First and foremost, it’s important to know that all frozen entrees are not created equal. Most of them– especially those with fried options, loaded with cheese or smothered in gravy — are not good for you. If the whole meal is shades of brown or white, it’s also a good sign to avoid. Many frozen entrees, even if they do contain green veggies, do not typically source the best ingredients so you are probably not getting organic, non-GMO options that you would be more likely to buy on your own.
Frozen meals that are touted as “healthy” likely contain a more colorful array of vegetables and fruits, but their claims are typically based on calorie and sodium count. For this reason they are T-I-N-Y meaning that they barely make a dent in a normal adult appetite at meal times. Many are under 300 calories which I consider a snack for myself and many of my clients — so try not to get locked into these promises of weight loss via calorie control as you’ll only end up with feeling of deprivation and hunger leading to a chocolate binge later on. If you do opt for these calorie controlled meals because they look tasty, I would suggest pairing your meal with a piece of fruit or side-salad and cup of coconut yogurt to make it a more complete meal.
As described above, calories and sodium are not the only thing that matter when it comes to making a frozen dinner healthier. I would argue the more important key is the list of ingredients in the box itself. Like other processed foods, if your frozen dinner contains ingredients you cannot pronounce or contains scary chemicals like mono-sodium glutamate (MSG), high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners, colors, or preservatives, it’s better if you put it back where you found it in the freezer section. You really don’t want to put stuff like that in your body, trust me.
After checking out the ingredients list and you find that the meal doesn’t contain too many funky or difficult to pronounce names, you might consider checking out the protein, fat and carbohydrates. As a rule of thumb, it’s good to find a meal where the protein, fat and carbs are fairly well balanced and not predominant in any one macronutrient. You also want a product where at least half of the carbs come from dietary fiber if possible. This can be achieved by choosing dinners that use a lot of veggies, whole grains and legumes.
Lastly, if you must eat a frozen dinner due to convenience or time constraints, do your best to pair it with a side of something fresh like a piece of fruits or salad. This will not only contribute to, what could be a meager calorie count, but it will also leave you feeling more satisfied and nourished.